I’m still a long way off doing a 10km event…the best I’ve done so far is a 2.8km, or a couple of double-ups (1km backed up with a 2km event on the same day), and I’m making the 5km Coogee to Bondi my goal swim for this coming season.

A couple of my friends actually managed the 10km Bondi to Watson’s Bay event this year and I was mightily impressed with that effort.

So since I found out about the Olympics Marathon Open Water Swim event (two days ago…impressive, huh?), my ears have been perking up and I’m quite intrigued to see how the elite handle the races.

I read this article in the Sydney Morning Herald today that has me even more intrigued. I’ve copied the full article below as I think direct links expire if you’re a non-subscriber…but full credit to the Herald for the article.

 When the going gets tough, the tough get swimming
John Huxley

John Huxley

Associate Editor, Sydney Morning Herald

More than six years have passed, but Melissa Gorman still winces with pain as she recalls the first time she competed in a 10 kilometre open-water swim – on Elk Lake, Vancouver Island, in the Pan Pacific Championships.

”It was horrible. Just horrible. I was going OK for the first seven or eight kilometres but then … well, it was like a piano dropped on top of me. I couldn’t feel anything. I was pretty much not going anywhere. I didn’t have the energy. The arms, the legs, were dead. I really didn’t know what I’d let myself in for,” says the 26-year-old Sydneysider, who still managed to finish fourth.

My will to live completely overcame my desire to win. 

Undeterred, Gorman has since swum a dozen more 10km marathons, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she finished 15th.

Open-water swimmer Melissa Gorman still winces at the thought of her first 10 kilometre event.Open-water swimmer Melissa Gorman still winces at the thought of her first 10 kilometre event. Photo: Getty Images

”To be honest,” she explains, ”there’s no 10 kilometre race that won’t hurt. When you’ve got experience you can switch off the pain. Or at least the bad pain. You can turn it into, like … good pain.”

Gorman will race 24 others on a six-lap course on the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. Ironman Ky Hurst will compete for Australia in the men’s event on Friday.

”It’s going to be amazing,” Hurst says. ”I can’t think of a better place in the world to showcase the event.”

Although the 10km swim became an Olympic event as recently as 2006, open-water racing has a long and colourful history, dating from 36BC, when Japanese warriors competed in aquatic marathons. In ancient Rome, races on the River Tiber attracted thousands of spectators. And the first Olympic swimming events were held not in purpose-built pools but on open water until 1908.

In 1896, competitors were taken to sea in rowing boats from the port of Piraeus in Greece and tipped into icy waters running a four-metre swell. Many had to be rescued as they struck out on the 1km swim back to shore.

The first man to cross the finish line, Hungary’s Alfred Hajos, later recalled: ”My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.”

Such life-or-death struggles are not a thing of the past. Last year, American Fran Crippen, a six-time US champion, died in an open-water race in Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. A report suggested he died of a ”cardiac abnormality” and ”uncontrolled exercise-induced asthma”. Several other competitors suffered heat exhaustion as water temperatures rose above 30.

As Greg Towle, the Australian national open-water swim coach, points out, on other occasions competitors have risked hypothermia, as well as water-borne hazards such as weeds, jellyfish and even floating carcasses.

No such extremes are expected on the Serpentine, a recreational lake topped up with tried, tested and quality-approved water from the nearby River Thames. Even the ducks are being excluded. But Towle says the snaky, tight-cornered course will bring extra excitement to an event described by one expert as ”two hours of aquatic anarchy”, which can leave swimmers with black eyes, bloodied noses and even broken ribs.

Officials patrol the 1.67km course, especially at the start, at the corners and near floating stations, where swimmers fuel up. Yellow and red cards is used to identify and punish offenders. Hurst insists most of the contact is unintentional. ”It’s just part and parcel of the sport. There’s no black line for us to follow. About 99 per cent of the world couldn’t follow one anyway.”

Towle agrees. ”You can’t put a bunch of athletes, especially guys topping six foot, in such a confined place and not expect there to be contact. But it’s never a focus for us. That would just be a waste of energy. What we work on is ensuring Melissa and Ky have flexible plans to get around the course as safely and efficiently as they can.”

The dynamics of open-water swimming have changed, Towle says. ”Winning is no longer just about swimming at a constant pace over a long distance. You are not in your own lane, not just focusing on your own race. It’s not always the fastest person who wins. It’s the person who can swim in a pack, get out of trouble, read a race, get in the right place in the last few hundred metres.” That includes negotiating crowded feeding stations.

”It’s very tactical,” Towle says. Some swimmers, such as British world champion Keri-Anne Payne, go straight for open water and try to stay to the finish. Most play cat and mouse. ”It’s a race where experience gets you a long way. It’s tactical,” Towle says.

Such a combination of mental and physical demands, and unpredictable conditions, has prompted some observers to claim the 10km swim is the toughest event at the Olympics. Other claimants include rowers (”all-body intensity”), marathon runners (like open-water swimming, ”two hours of gruelling endurance”) and triathletes (”an unholy trinity of bloody tough sports”). Counting calories per hour burned, energy expended, suggests marathon runners and rowers might ”do it tougher” than open-water swimmers, who can lose from half a kilogram to four or 5kg in a 10km race.

According to one rough, online calorie guide, in two hours a male swimmer weighing, say, 86kg, can expend 2700 calories, a rower 2000 and a swimmer 1400. But as Towle says, there are so many parameters. ”You can take measurements, but so much depends on an athlete’s build, metabolism, intensity, environment and so on.”

How, too, does one measure the physical and mental toughness required not just to endure but to survive the roughing-up, accidental or not, that is inevitable. Peter Larkins, a doctor and sports physician who works with athletes across many disciplines, agrees marathon swimmers do it tough, although their rough ride is ameliorated in part by the ”buoyancy effect”. Significantly, his personal pick for ”toughest event” is the decathlon. ”It’s two days, 10 sports, jumping, throwing, sprinting, standing still, waiting. It tests a range of athletic skills and is mentally stressful.”

Ultimately, the toughness title does not matter. As Towle says: ”All I know is people doing open-swim for the first time come out of the water and say it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done. I’ve got the greatest respect for them.”

Gorman’s regime, devised with coach Ken Wood of the Redcliffe City High Performance Centre, includes swimming 60 to 70km, and gym, riding and running sessions.She sees a long-term future in a sport whose widespread popularity is reflected in the packed Australian ocean swim program. She recently launched special edition Olympic togs for sponsor Aquadiva. At $400 they might sound expensive, but the revenue helps fund the athlete in a sport that still struggles for financial support. By contrast, 31-year-old Hurst says the London Olympics will be his last.

Having realised in Beijing a lifelong ambition to represent Australia, he will give London his best shot and return to ironman events. He will not be lost entirely to open-water swimming: he founded and will continue to run the Great Australian Swim Series.

Returning to ironman will be hard, but Hurst reckons the 10km race is among the world’s toughest events. ”My first, I still remember. I almost died at the finish. I mean, I was toast.”